Saturday, December 28, 2013

Wrapping up the Reading Challenges: Mystery/Crime

To continue my end-of-the-year reckoning of reading challenges, I will talk a little about the OTHER mystery challenge, the Mystery/Crime Reading Challenge 2013 hosted by A Bookish Girl.  In addition to reading Vintage Mysteries (I'm linking to my own post rather than repeating those reviews here), I went back on my vow not to start any more series until I’d finished my other ones. 

I began this trespass with Charles Finch’s A Beautiful Blue Death.  It was good enough for me to want to read the other Charles Lenox sequels, but honestly aside from introducing the characters (who promise to develop nicely over the next few books) I didn’t think it all that memorable. 

Next I found Death on the Aegean Queen by Maria Hudgins on my e-reader.  Part of a series called the “Travel Mysteries,” it follows Dotsy Lamb as she investigates murder, uncovers an antiquities smuggler ring, and reveals false identities.  I would read a bunch more of these mysteries, partly because they remind me of modern-day Agatha Christies due to the exotic locales, the colorful characters, the “fun” element to the sleuthing.

So far, so good, so I tried The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd.  I’d seen this lauded on Goodreads, Amazon, and my Google+ reading groups.  I’d seen its sequel, A Fatal Likeness, on my library’s shelves, and almost started reading that before I realized it was a sequel.  The final recommendation of this novel was the fact that it was based on Bleak House, one of my favorite Dickens novels (and a proto-detective novel in its own right).  I found Lynn Shepherd’s prose interesting in that it’s not often you find a novel written in present tense.  I did NOT find interesting how the novel mutilates the Bleak House plot into what has become the run-of-the-mill postmodern interpretation of Victorian times as “Weren’t those Victorians all perverted hypocrites.”  This interpretation (which I consider a gross generalization and a  lazy cop-out on the part of historical fiction writers) is so prevalent in today’s fiction that I usually pass by such fare by simply scanning the back cover or inside blurb for the words “brothel” or “prostitute” or “den,” but I admit that Solitary House fooled me until the last quarter of the book.  I was also disappointed that some of my favorite Bleak House characters (Guppy, George, a few others) were ignored and Inspector Bucket (possibly not intentionally cool, but I always thought so) was not as awesome as he should’ve been.

Lastly I began listening to audiobooks of Elizabeth Peters’ “Amelia Peabody Mysteries.”  I’d read the first, Crocodile on the Sandbank, when I was about sixteen and at the height of my Egyptology craze.  After discovering that Barbara Rosenblat had done the narration for the audiobooks, I couldn’t resist any longer.  Rosenblat is by far my favorite audiobook reader, and I first listened to her read the “Mrs. Pollifax” espionage dramedy/mysteries.  Having finished Mrs. Pollifax off, I was thrilled to start Amelia Peabody.  This year I read the first five novels in the nineteen-book series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, The Curse of the Pharoah, The Mummy Case, Lion in the Valley and The Deeds of the Disturber.  I like to read series like this one right after another since the sequels often reference important events and characters from the previous books, and the character development is more evident than it would be if I took a break between readings.  Therefore rather than reviewing each mystery individually, I’ll do an overview of the series so far:

Elizabeth Peters was the nom de plume of real-life Egyptologist Barbara Mertz.  Even in this fictional Victorian world Mertz uses all her knowledge of Ancient Egypt, archaeology, and the history of archaeology to her advantage.  Read these novels and you will add to your knowledge of real historical facts whether you want to or not!  These novels also bring to mind the “penny dreadful” or otherwise sensational adventure books written in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s and mostly aimed at teenage boys.  The African adventure stories of Alan Quatermain are heavily referenced, as well as Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the Arabian Nights, even Jane Eyre and other gothic novels.  Peters for the most part avoids the modern interpretation of Victorians, making her characters both apart from their times (Amelia often wears trousers and is highly feminist) and a part of their times (Amelia also has shown the aloofness of a Victorian parent, often pawning her son Ramses off on nurses; she also is very feudal in her treatment of the household staff).  While I would say these books are mostly positive in their qualities, I must admit that the sensuality of the (married) main characters keeps me from recommending it to a teen audience, and that I am a bit disappointed in some of the portrayals of Christianity in the novels (though Amelia herself often claims “Christian duties” as the motivator behind her actions, so that’s something). 

So, having read eight books especially for this challenge, and adding to it the eleven Vintage Mysteries I read for another challenge, comes to nineteen.  Just one short of being a Captain, but I’m content (for this year) to be stuck at Leftenant Laura (yes, I’m misspelling that.  One, because I can’t spell it correctly, two because that’s the way I pronounce it, and three because I’m left-handed, which isn’t really related but I thought I’d throw that out there so I’d have three reasons.).

Wrapping Up Reading Challenges: Vintage Mystery

As the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Thirteen comes to a close, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on all that we have accomplished.  I refer to what we have accomplished reading-wise, of course.  As usual I read more than I thought…but less than I wanted. 

This year I tried something different, signing up for reading challenges.  The problem with this was that instead of reading off my To Be Read Pile (an eclectic and growing monstrosity that resides both in my head as I peruse my online library catalog as well as surrounds my nightstand), I was forced under duress to choose other books according to a theme.  Although I selected challenges I thought would help me whittle down that TBRP…well, let’s just say it didn’t quite work out.

But now it’s the end of the year, and those challenges have come due!  Like library books!  A sense of panic overwhelms me!  Fine, I’ll just start with my Vintage Mystery reviews, which were for the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 hosted by My Reader’s Block:

The Red Box (1: Colorful Crime) - Rex Stout

Murder by candy?  And all this time you thought your dentist was exaggerating.   I always judge a mystery's complexity on whether I can figure it out...because usually I'm not trying that hard to root out clues in the prose, so if even a casual reader like me can guess the solution, it's a pretty simple plot.   By that standard, this is one of the simpler Nero Wolfe mysteries, but that doesn't mean it still isn't fun.   You'll never see those red Valentine's Day boxes of assorted chocolates the same way again after reading this novel.

Prisoner's Base (28: Book to Movie) - Rex Stout

One of my favorite--and one of the creepier--Nero Wolfe mysteries, Prisoner's Base gets its title from a children's game that I had never heard of before reading this book.   Of course Rex Stout's novel turns this "game" into something deadly.   To save yourself from spoilers, don't watch the A&E adaptation until AFTER you've read the book.  Then watch away.

If Death Ever Slept (16: Locked Room)s- Rex Stout

It seems like Archie Goodwin is always going undercover as someone's secretary for the sake of a case, and it turns out everyone at the company/home he is working in is just plain batty.  The wealthy clan he  infiltrates in "If Death Ever Slept" is no exception.  A tyrannical patriarch hires Nero Wolfe to "get rid of" his annoying gold-digging daughter-in-law.  But because this IS a Nero Wolfe mystery, you know that it's going to end up being not a case of "paying off the gold-digger"  but also a case of murder. 

Too Many Women (10: Wicked Women)- Rex Stout

A man gets run over and Wolfe is hired to find out what happened.  Of course this means Archie goes undercover again, at a Wall Street office where five hundred women work--we only meet about five that are important to the plot.  Archie being Archie, this means that he's hitting on pretty much all of these dames, and his character comes off kind of unpleasant as he juggles dinner-dates and flirting between several girls at once.  It's one thing having Archie flit from girl to girl in the entire series; it's another to have him do it between chapters.  That's one flaw in Archie's character: as has been pointed out by better critics than myself, Archie may LOVE women, but he doesn't respect them.  The misogynist Nero Wolfe, by contrast, may dislike women and not understand their motives, but he always respects them.

The ABC Murders (24: A Murder by Any Other Name; this book is alternately titled "The Alphabet Murders") ~ Agatha Christie

One thing I like about Christie's novels that is usually lacking in mystery series is how she teases out small themes.  At the beginning of this story, for instance, she emphasizes mortality and aging, as the great Poirot is revealed to be coloring his hair, his loyal friend Hastings' hair is  combed over, etc.  There's a nostalgia in it that, in retrospect, is actually a literary cue to the murderer's identity.  I had the plot pretty much spoiled by a reference to it in an episode of "Remington Steele," so I won't say that I figured out the case by myself, and I won't do YOU the injustice of giving any more hints.   

Murder in Mesopotamia (7: World Traveler) - Agatha Christie

Unusual for an Agatha Christie mystery, I actually figured out not only whodunnit, but howdunnit.   This is a disappointment because I was really expecting this book to be more complex.   Archaeology being an interest of mine, I kept wanting to know more about the "dig" where the murder takes place, but really this mystery could have taken place anywhere else.  Another thing that detracted (and distracted) from my enjoyment of this book was the person who read it.  I always listen to Christie's books via audiobook, and the reader for this one was not very good at accents...and almost every character in this story has an accent! 
The Hollow (17: Country House Criminals) - Agatha Christie

I have rarely been as happy to have someone be the murder victim in one of these stories as I have been for Dr. John Christow.  A smug philanderer, one feels more sympathy for his murderer than is probably good for the reader's moral compass. 

Christow, his vacant and doggedly devoted wife Gerda, his sculptor mistress Henrietta, and the flirty actress Veronica Cray all end up cooped up together in one of those vast and wealthy houses that are littered all over the English countryside in Christie's work.  In this instance the house belongs to the Angkatells.   Before too long Christow is dead.  But who did it?  All three of the above name women have reason to kill him out of jealousy, and the Angkatells aren't without motive either.  In fact, if Poirot were able to jump out of the book and interrogate ME, I myself would not be above suspicion, because I hated the guy.

One thing to remember when reading mysteries is Occam's Razor.  Along the lines of the popular Sherlock Holmes quotation "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” Occam's Razor states that the most obvious or simplest option to a problem is the solution.  The more you train yourself to look at the bare facts of a mystery novel and disregard all the smoke and mirrors which the author employs to redirect you, the more often you will be accurate in your own amateur inductions. 

Five Little Pigs (8: Dangerous Beasts) - Agatha Christie

A young woman, raised by relatives, finds out just before she is to be married that her birth mother was convicted of killing her husband.  Afraid that unless her mother's name is cleared her fiancĂ© will suspect the murderous tendencies are genetic, the young woman hires Poirot.  Thus Poirot begins working on a VERY cold case, narrowing the suspects to five "little pigs", people whose movements mimic the "This Little Piggie" nursery rhyme.

Agatha Christie often uses children's nursery rhymes to entitle her stories, sometimes to very haunting effect.  "A Pocketful of Rye" is a Miss Marple example of that, where the murderer uses that rhyme deliberately in his methods of killing. "By the Pricking of My Thumbs" (which is a reference to Shakespeare, but along the same titling theme), a Tommy and Tuppence mystery, does not really go beyond the title's quotation, but "something evil this way comes" really resonates in that dark and chilling tale.  When it comes to Poirot, however, he just likes nursery rhymes.  He often connects his current case with things like "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" or the less-known (to me at least) "Mrs. McGinty's Dead."

I think Christie honed in on something that horror movies and thriller television often employ nowadays: that simple, nonthreatening, and childish things that seem so ordinary are the most scary when juxtaposed with death.  Childhood is as far away from the grave (especially when you are a child yourself) as you can get, so the mix of childish things with human mortality is as stark as mixing oil with water.

Murder in the Mews and other Stories (14: Scene of the Crime) - Agatha Christie

Okay I'm not going to talk about Murder in the Mews, but instead about Triangle at Rhodes, which was one of the other two stories included in this collection.  Let me just say this is Christie at her most confusing (which to me is a good thing).  The "triangle" of the title is a LOVE triangle, and there is Poirot watching like the voyeur he pretty much always is (since he's never a part of the love triangle himself, which I find a shame because that is something Christie never tried--although she seems to have used every other twist in the book).  That said, I did figure this one out fairly early on.  Perhaps it's because Poirot is so skilled at rooting out murderers even before they have committed the murder.  He does the same in Death on the Nile, trying to save the murderer from themselves.  However, although I was able to guess in this way who  the murderer was, I couldn't figure out how the murder was accomplished until Poirot explained it to me. 

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (4: Leave it to the Professionals) - Emmuska Orczy

Emmuska Orczy is probably most famous for her novel "The Scarlet Pimpernel," but here she does something different.  Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's much more famous Sherlock Holmes, Lady Molly is a collection of loosely linked short stories starring the Holmesian-brilliant but utterly-feminine Lady Molly and her Watsonian sidekick and maid, Mary.  They solve crimes using not the deductive reasoning of most genius detectives, but feminine intuition and common sense.

Tales of Terror and Mystery (I'm gonna go with 27. Psychic Phenomena in that a lot of these short stories deal with seemingly spooky events that have a "rational explanation") by Arthur Conan Doyle

“What?” You say, “I didn’t know Doyle wrote other mysteries aside from Sherlock Holmes!” 

Well, these were forgotten for a reason.  They’re not all that good, nor are they the ingeniously plotted whodunnits we’ve come to expect from the mind behind the Great Detective.  Sure, there are some interesting twists (though a newfangled invention called the phonograph was probably an unexpected twist in Doyle’s time, but I saw it coming a mile away!), and Doyle as always has a special way of turning phrases that makes the reading itself not tortuous, but I wouldn’t really consider these “mysteries” in the same sense as Sherlock Holmes or any of the other novels I read for this challenge.  

The challenge was to read at least eight books, and I ended up reading eleven.  I probably could have read several more (the Nero Wolfe and Poirot books aren’t all that voluminous), except I was purposely spacing them out so the mysteries wouldn’t all blend into one in my mind.

To conclude, I think it’s fair to say that while I probably will avoid signing up for FIVE reading challenges next year (I have a lot of Ancient History books to read instead, sigh…..), I would probably sign up for THIS one again, since I do read a lot of mystery novels, particularly via audiobook.  Besides, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Christie/Stout bibliographies, and I wouldn’t mind rereading the Sherlock Holmes canon again…

Monday, December 16, 2013

Reviewing P.G. Wodehouse's "Laughing Gas"

It was my first exposure to P.G. Wodehouse, and I didn’t know it until years afterward. This is how it all began: my devious mother got me a “comedy book on cassette.” Already I have to interrupt myself to explain cassettes to the young and ignorant whippersnapper readers.  Are you sitting comfortably? “Cassettes,” dear children, are from the era you’ve probably been taught in history class to refer to as B.C.D., that is Before CD’s. CD’s, you may vaguely recall, are those coaster-shaped things that you used to use before you got an iPod and started downloading everything. 

But as I was saying, my mom checked out this “comedy” book on cassette from the library.  Maybe she was being her usual devious self. Maybe she had intended to listen to it in her nonexistent spare time, and when she realized the futility of this intention she passed it on to me so I wouldn’t annoy her by listening to The Adventure of the Speckled Band for the fortieth time. Either way, I listened to it.

Sure, I thought it was funny. I hadn’t been as exposed to British accents at that tender age, so at least there was the strange pronunciation to get a giggle out of every few minutes.  However, nothing had prepared me to process the Wodehousian speak that MAKES Wodehouse’s writing so unique. I didn’t really get that it was supposed to be humorous. 

“Wow, I knew English people talked weird,” I thought to myself, “But I didn’t think their vocabulary was THAT different.” I mean, who goes around calling “a punch in the nose” a “poke in the snoot”? Once might be eccentric, but to use it consistently, as if it were an accepted figure of speech! This was beyond my comprehension. 

But let’s get back to the story. Or rather, since I haven’t really talked about the story, let’s get ON with the story. It’s about this British Earl named Reggie who goes to Hollywood to talk his drunkard cousin out of marrying what the Stiff Upper Lip Relatives think is an American gold-digging bimbo. Complications arise, he ends up eating ice cream at the wrong time and on the wrong tooth, and he ends up under laughing gas getting his tooth fixed. At the same time Joey Cooley, child star a-la Shirley Temple, is ALSO under laughing gas getting a tooth pulled. When Reggie’s consciousness returns, he finds it’s returned to the wrong body.  Yep, that’s right, it’s a Body Switching Story. Freaky Friday + 1930’s Hollywood + the usual Wodehousian plot gambits with spunky women, bratty kids, mean aunts (though in this case it’s not technically an aunt), and famous old gentlemen who hate spats. 

As I said, my twelve-year-old self didn’t really know what to make of this world. Much later I discovered Jeeves and Wooster, late enough for me to have forgotten the name of this book.  “This P.G. Wodehouse writes a lot like that guy who wrote the bodyswitching story with the dentist thing,” I commented to myself.  Then it dawned on me that I should read through Wodehouse’s bibliography…and found Laughing Gas. I listened to it just recently, and enjoyed it a lot more now that I understand what Simon Prebble was saying.*

Speaking of Simon Prebble, first let me note that I love his narration, but sadly he should not have read Laughing Gas. Why? Because this book is mostly set in America, with American characters sporting American accents. And Simon Prebble, proficient as he may be with different British regional dialects, cannot do an Ohio accent for the world.  It took me several C.D’s (There I go again, young ones, showing my age with my refusal to use a downloadable audiobook) to realize he was even TRYING to do anything with Joey Cooley.  Granted this book is set in the 30’s, and most American films from around that time sound vaguely British (mostly because actors wanted to be taken seriously and hired British elocution teachers. I naturally learned all this from Singin in the Rain), but since Joey Cooley is described as having a hopeless Ohioan accent, there really is no excuse.

Prebble isn’t the only problem. After all, here’s Wodehouse writing all these Americans as if they were British. It should have been a HUGE tipoff that Joey Cooley had been replaced mentally by an Earl when Reggie kept greeting people with “What ho.” 

Unfortunately, though Lauging Gas is as hilarious as I’ve come to expect of Wodehouse, it’s not his crispest work, technically speaking. His plots are always hinged on the humor of coincidence: people bumping into each other at the worst or most unexpected moments, that sort of thing. These coincidences aren’t always believable (there’s something of a heightened reality about these stories), but it’s easy to suspend that belief when there are a limited amount of characters in a small country estate. In contrast, it’s hard to suspend believe in the huge, sprawling, overpopulated United States (or even just Hollywood), and the humor seems forced and not quite up to snuff by Wodehousian standards.

*Thank you, Masterpiece Theater, for helping me to learn British English.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"A Country of Vast Designs" by Robert W. Merry: A Review


Last week I wrote about having historical blind spots—while I love history, there are certain time periods (usually the 1700’s) that I don’t really know about.  Often I’ll pick a nonfiction book by virtue of my ignorance of its topic.  “Hey,” I’ll say to myself, “I know next to nothing about President James Polk and the Mexican/American Wars and Manifest Destiny.  I think I’ll listen to this audiobook recording of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thoughts on de Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and The French Revolution"

History, it is easily perceived, is a picture-gallery containing a host of copies and very few originals. ~ Chapter VI

I would say I’m a pretty eclectic reader in general.  While fiction—particularly 1800’s British Literature—is probably my favorite to read for pleasure, I also enjoy poetry, drama (to a lesser extent) and nonfiction.  Of the vast nonfiction subjects I read, history would probably be the top choice.  Yet while I've read a great deal on ancient history, I've come to notice there are quite a few “blind spots.”  One of these blind spots is the French Revolution period. 

It’s a bit ironic, actually, that I haven’t read much nonfiction on the era that is just around the time people started writing the fiction books I love.  Most of what I understand about Regency England, for example, is from Jane Austen’s works.  However, I’m slowly trying to fill in the gaps, knowing that the reality of the world where Austen and my other preferred authors lived will inform me more about the fictions they created.

That’s why I picked up Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution.  Part history, part sociology, and part philosophy, I recommend this book not only because it is a more “contemporary”* take on the French Revolution, but because as I read it I kept seeing parallels to our own time and to my own country.  Chapter VI in particular seemed a lot more relevant today than I had expected.  Now, I could easily go into a political rant about what I think is wrong with the United States government, but I think I’ll let the following quotations from de Tocqueville do it for me…

A marked characteristic of the French government, even in those days, was the hatred it bore to every one, whether noble or not, who presumed to meddle with public affairs without its knowledge. It took fright at the organization of the least public body which ventured to exist without permission.  It could brook no association but such as it had arbitrarily formed, and over which it presided….  In a word, it objected to people looking after their own concerned, and referred general inertia to rivalry.  

Nobody expected to succeed in any enterprise unless the state helped him.  Farmers, who, as a class, are generally stubborn and indocile, were led to believe that the backwardness of agriculture was due to the lack of advice and aid from the government.  

Government having assumed the place of Providence, people naturally invoked its aid for their private wants.  Heaps of petitions were received from persons who wanted their petty private ends serves, always for the public good. 

Just to be clear, de Tocqueville is referring to the failings of the Revolutionary Government, after the people had ousted the tyrannical monarchy.  According to de Tocqueville, there are two motivations for revolution: a love of liberty or a hatred of despotism.  When revolts are motivated by hatred, then once one despot is overthrown then the revolutionaries have no better option with which to fill that void in authority, and predictably another despot takes the first one’s place.  When the love of liberty is the motivator, however, those who revolt against tyranny will try to replace it with something better in order to preserve their newly-earned liberty. 

Maybe my seeing a connection between Revolutionary France and modern America is a little exaggerated.  Possibly there are other countries who fit that comparison even better.  But to me, reading history books like this is an opportunity not only to learn about the past, but to open my eyes about the truth of the world around me, and to expand my perception of my world beyond what the media or current books are telling me to believe.

*I’m using this word in the historical sense, meaning de Tocqueville was writing about it closer to the time it actually occurred than OUR contemporary history books written two centuries later.